‘Why does our rabbi study Talmud?’ a perplexed congregant asked his synagogue’s chairman. ‘I thought he was already qualified!’ Traditional Judaism has always seen lifelong Torah study as absolutely indispensable to its vision of the world. The Shema itself requires us to strongly impress the Torah upon our children and to speak of it in every possible circumstance. The Mishnah describes Torah study as ‘equivalent to all of the Mitzvot’ and the Talmud prefers one who learns to one who observes, as ‘study leads to action.’
People are often surprised to discover that my greatest passion, and that of many of my colleagues, is studying and teaching Torah. Perhaps the greatest challenge of a rabbi’s professional life is finding enough time to learn and thereby continue one’s life-goal of plumbing the depths of the Torah and deepening one’s connection with the divine.
While there are many areas of Torah study, including Bible, Jewish philosophy, Jewish law and ethics, high-level learning most commonly centres on the Talmud. Judaism teaches that the revelation at Sinai was largely comprised of ‘the Oral Law’, a dynamic, all-encompassing repository of law, ethics, theological principles and esoteric ideas. This was meant to remain unwritten, scrupulously handed down by successive generations of teachers to their disciples. A century after the destruction of the second Temple, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi realised that this transmission was threatened by dispersal and persecution. So he wrote a terse form of the Oral Law, known as the Mishnah. Its analysis, discussion and clarification in the Torah academies of Israel and Babylon over the following centuries were codified as the Talmud by the sages of the early 6th century. Scrutinising, interpreting and most of all, absorbing oneself in the sea of the Talmud forms the basis for most Jewish learning today. Yeshivah students may devote as much as eight hours a day to its study. But it’s not easy; it can take years to master its complexities.
One way in which I further my own learning is through ‘daf yomi’. One of the most remarkable study projects ever devised, it unites people around the world in studying a daily folio-page of Talmud. As it contains close to 3000 pages, the entire cycle takes seven and a half years. Hundreds of daily shiurim worldwide teach the ‘daf’, as it is affectionately known. Wherever you are, the shiur will be studying the same page on the same day. As well as the shiur-goers, thousands (like me) study privately, in small groups, at lunchtime, while travelling, by listening to a recorded shiur, or even over the Internet.
The daily ‘daf’ is not a substitute for deeper study – there are pages that I should have learned better and others, I will admit, barely recall. Yet it has allowed me to maintain daily study despite a hectic schedule. It has also enabled me to acquaint myself with areas of Jewish thought that I would otherwise never have seen. And it has become part of my life – at the top of every day’s schedule is the ‘daf’; when I travel, my miniature tractate accompanies me, and my congregants would be surprised not to see me peering into a text whenever I get the chance. The late author Herman Wouk, a ‘daf yomi’ aficionado, remarked that the Talmud was in his bones, ‘elegant and arcane ethical algebra,’ quintessentially Jewish, fun and holy besides.
The 11th cycle of daf yomi will end on 1st March. Huge celebrations are planned in the UK, Israel and around the world, wherever the daf is learned. There will even be one in Lublin, where it all started. The biggest event will be in the USA, where an expected 120,000 people (of whom I will be one) will gather for a mega-siyum (concluding celebration). I am very excited – proud that I have actually seen it through, thrilled to have shared an experience with countless Jews around the world and overjoyed to attend the biggest siyum in history. But most of all, I can’t wait to start again.
Daf Yomi was the brainchild of Rabbi Meir Shapiro, the pre-war head of the Yeshivah in Lublin. In 1923, at the first congress of Agudath Israel in Vienna, he proposed a daily page-a-day Talmud study programme, known as daf yomi. Scholars and laymen alike study the daf and finish the entire Talmud in seven and a half years. Daf yomi has grown into a worldwide movement, with shiurim and followers in every major Jewish community in the world. Many Jewish calendars now include the daf schedule and the current cycle has seen significant growth in the number of devotees.
A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle and is reprinted with permission.